Little Nambas, Malekula Island – 19/7/2011

Written by Josh and Karen


Small Nambas on Malekula Island

Malekula also spelt Malakula is Vanuatu’s second largest island. Malekula lies between Espiritu Santo and Malo, separated by the Bougainville Strait.

The population of the island is approximately 23 000 and they speak nearly 30 different languages there. The island is home to two tribes, the ‘Big Nambas’ in the north and the ‘Small Nambas’ in the central and southern parts of the island. The tribe’s names are derived from the size of their nambas or penis sheath, that they wear.

Like many of the islands in Vanuatu, Melakula’s economy is based largely on agriculture, particularly copra.  Melakula has a growing tourism industry based on cultural dances by the different Namba tribes and visiting cannibal sites, as well as snorkelling and diving.


Like Espiritu Santo, Malekula was also discovered during a Spanish expedition led by Portuguese, Pedro Fernandes de Quiros in 1606. During the mid-1800s, when Europe was desperate for cotton the settlers cleared land and planted both cotton and coconut plantations, but malaria, cannibalism and cyclones drove the settlers away.  During the 1880s the French bought large tracts of land on the eastern side of the island and created Vanuatu’s largest plantation.  Constant friction over land ownership between the French and the British led to French troops being stationed on the island, however they left two years later having not resolved the issues.

Cannibalism had existed a long time on the island, but the last victim was cooked in a Big Namba oven in 1969.  A different form of cannibalism continued after this for several years, the ritual of eating flesh from a dead relative to keep something from them living.

Out Visit

We anchored off Melakula and dinghied ashore to visit the Little Namba village near Rano.   It was a 15-minute hike to reach the village, where we met some of the men.  The island is famous for two things, the first was cannibalism and the second is the penis sheath, we were here for the latter.  The village forms part of the tribe called the small nambas, because they wear a small penis sheath, although today they wear shorts and t-shirts, except when performing.



The village are proud of their culture which has been passed down through the generations and are now performed for tourists.  In fact, the village has a custom school where children grow up learning the traditional dances and crafts.  While we were there it was only the men who performed.  The men wear their nambas made from either banana or pandanis leaf, which is wrapped around their penis and attached to a belt.  The only other thing worn was thick anklets covered in seeds that jingle like bells, when they stamp their feet.


The seeds on their anklets jingle as they dance.

The Nambas have different dances for various occasions; like the blessing of a marriage, a new chief taking over power or going into battle.  During our performance we had a boy of around 12 participating with the group and a toddler in his own costume, who desperately wanted to join in.  We were the only tourists on the island, so they performed their custom dances just for us.


This little guy was pretty keen to join in with the men dancing.

We were seated on logs around the performance area and waited for it to begin.  The dancing is accompanied by the beating of drums, (hollowed out logs) the stamping of feet to make the anklets rattle and some type of giro.

On the right are the drums made from hollowed out logs and on the right is a type of giro.

The first dance performed symbolised sailing to their island.  The sea and canoes are a major part of their life, as they provide a method of transportation and a way to fish.


Next, they performed a little bit of magic, where they lifted a boy on leaves.  Max also had a go at being lifted too.  The leaves were quite prickly, and Dad thought the leaves stuck together a bit like Velcro and that’s probably why they could lift Max on them.

The next dance performed, was about a man who desperately wanted to dance, but because of his enlarged testicle he was unable.  I wonder which poor villager that story was based on.


Yep, that sure is one big testicle

When we walked back to the dinghy there were some outrigger canoes on the beach, so we took a few photos.

Do you think Tristan and Max have noticed that they aren’t moving?

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